LOS ANGELES — “When we elect Barack — knock on wood — we will have someone who responds to labor, to people’s needs, the plight of immigrants. But he can’t win change alone. It will take a larger movement,” said Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the 840,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
One of the most dynamic labor leaders in the country, she has been at the center of organizing, negotiating and election efforts that have made Los Angeles a union city — with a county-wide labor force that is 19 percent organized compared to a national rate of 11 percent.
In the midst of mobilizing for a union voter turnout in the hundreds of thousands, phone banking and sending workers to battleground states, Durazo dedicated three days this month to fasting for immigrant rights. She encamped with scores of other fasters at La Plaza Olvera, the historic and geographical center of Los Angeles.
On Oct. 25, after her first day of fasting, she sat down beside her tent for an interview with the People’s Weekly World about the Bush administration’s impact on working people and the prospects for change with this election.
“We have had a great degree of success locally with home care, truckers, janitors, construction and other industries but the scale has to be two to three times more,” she said soberly. “Labor has political clout locally but not as strong in the state and nation. There are more and more poverty-level jobs, the cost of living has risen with gas prices, record repossessions increasing deportation.”
“Our only protection in a looming depression is a stronger movement that can fight back” against corporate takeaways and raiding of the national treasury, she said. “What we are doing in this election is unprecedented: city and statewide we are sending hundreds and hundreds of members to work full-time in battleground states. This is proof of what we can do, of our potential when we know what is at stake.”
Continued action will be needed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, defend Social Security, win comprehensive immigration reform and end the war in Iraq, Durazo stressed. “We will have to take the lead. If we don’t, the Democrats will weaken” under corporate pressure, she said.
Republicans have been among the worst in advocating anti-labor policies, but many Democrats are from conservative and moderate districts and don’t have pro-labor backgrounds, she noted.
“It has not only become more difficult to organize, it has become more dangerous, like going back to the days of Joe Hill,” Durazo said, referring to the legendary labor organizer who was hanged for his organizing efforts.
“The immigration raids are increasing, workers are treated like terrorists,” she added. “I firmly believe the unions have to invest more and more into organizing, regardless of the law — it is our responsibility.”
Reviewing the Bush administration, she reflected that “their disdain for human rights and international guarantees has not been seen for decades.”
“The world is watching our election and expects the people will change the direction,” she said. “If the voters elect McCain, respect will be lost for our people.”
Durazo said, “I have joined in this fast to remind the Latino community and others of the importance of the vote.”
The Fast For Our Future, organized and supported by immigrants rights, clergy, youth and labor activists, is calling for a million people to sign a pledge to vote for immigrant rights, to fast one day, to mobilize others to support the campaign, and to work on the issue after the election.
“We have to realize the slogan of 2006: Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” said Durazo. Asked what comes next, she said, “Today we vote, tomorrow we march.”